Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 20 January 2016
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection
Quality of Teaching in Higher Education: Discussion
We are now in public session. I welcome our guests.
I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Opening statements submitted to the committee will be published on the committee's website after the meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. At the request of the broadcasting and recording services, all of those present are asked to ensure that their mobile phones are turned off completely or placed in safe or flight mode for the duration of the meeting.
Today, we are looking at the issue of the quality of teaching in higher level education. Ireland's higher education system has played a major role in the development of Irish society and the economy and will continue to do so as we seek to build an innovative, knowledge-based economy which provides sustainable employment opportunities and good standards of living for our citizens as well as a broad education. We are aware of the pressure that has been on third level institutions in recent years to accommodate an increasing number of students at a time of scarce resources. In view of these considerations, the issue of quality of teaching in third level institutions is very important and always has been. To brief us on this matter, I am pleased to welcome Dr. Jen Harvey, head of learning at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Professor Mary Gallagher, school of languages and literature, UCD, and Dr. Greg Foley, school of biotechnology, Dublin City University. This meeting has been sought by Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell for a long time. In fact, since the committee was established, she has been highlighting the issue and asking us to have a meeting on it. We are glad to finally get around to her request. To get our discussion under way, I invite Dr. Harvey to make her presentation.
Dr. Jen Harvey:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to address it. I was given the brief to talk about quality of teaching in higher education and I have interpreted it in that way. The issue has become one of increasing importance as the landscape of higher education has changed. We face international competition and there is greater diversity in the student population. Things have changed substantially in the last ten or 15 years in Ireland. There is emergent technology of which we can avail. I want to talk us through a context for consideration of quality of higher education before focusing on key elements related to teaching quality which is about the importance of student learning and engagement and academic development. I have also included for the committee's consideration a number of references which draw on some of the extensive discussions around the Green Paper and quality of teaching in the UK.
In terms of considering teaching as responding to the national agenda, from the Hunt report there has been a variety of strategies until recently. There has been the strategy of the national plan for equality of access which looks to higher education institutions to encourage participation and which seeks to give increasing accountability to higher education institutions on meeting specific targets. Of particular importance is the issue around excellence in teaching and learning to underpin a high-quality student experience within third level, which is key. Certainly, Ireland has always been a leader in this area. This is also in terms of making us globally competitive and internationally orientated.
Quality teaching is a concept which is difficult to define. It is very complex. There are many factors which impact on quality of teaching. It cannot really be looked at in isolation. One cannot separate it from discussions on quality cultures and learning support within institutions. The concept of teaching quality takes different forms depending on whether one is a full-time student or whether one is studying online, etc. It is also very much stakeholder relative in terms of employers, students, academics. Other stakeholder groups would have different interpretations as to what quality is. In looking at quality, one tends to think of the inspirational, passionate teacher. If we are considering what makes a teacher extraordinary, it is very much about the teaching experience. He or she knows how to teach, what to teach and how to improve. It is about bringing students along. He or she needs to have passion and inspiration, which is what sets him or her above ordinary teachers. He or she also needs the toolkit. That is one of the strengths DIT brings to the table in that all of our new academics undertake our postgraduate diploma and we have an extensive CPD support programme for teachers and academics who are at different stages of their career development.
I refer in particular to the importance of student retention and success. There has been a focus nationally around and about the whole issue of transition to third level and the effort to retain students. The key element within this has to be about student engagement. I welcome the consultation document which has been commissioned about how we might do this more effectively. The reality is that a lot of institutions have not taken the opportunity to do this as well as they might. That is more than just about getting students to be active learners. It is also about involving them in decisions as producers of the curriculum and negotiating and learning pathways which are appropriate to them. That also links into the quality of teaching issue. I have included some slides around the student engagement at Trinity College Dublin because I thought it was useful.
As good teachers, we need to determine what students do and direct them to purposeful activities. We need to put in place effective educational practices to do that. That is about resourcing, supporting and providing timely strategies and policies to ensure quality. We have recently undertaken to develop a student engagement strategy. I have included some examples in the slides which I circulated previously. I will pull out some which are particularly important. There is this idea of a sense of belonging and teachers ensuring that students coming into third level feel as if they should be there, building confidence and engaging them as part of a community. That is community with their peers within the institution and in terms of their professional direction into the future, which is key to retention. There is the idea of learning as a shared responsibility. Alongside that is providing a supportive learning environment where they get support from their peers and also provide feedback. It is the institution's responsibility to act on that feedback and to build alongside of this research capability.
We are putting in place the best practice. Within DIT, we have been looking to provide enriching educational experiences which aim to build our learners as lifelong, autonomous learners but also to provide them with skills so that whether they decide to move internationally or become actively engaged within their local communities, they have the confidence to do so and the appropriate skills and abilities to articulate it. Within the learning teaching and technology centre, LTTC, at DIT, we have provided a great deal of support for academics so that they might encourage the development of this high-quality learning experience. Part of that is through the postgraduate diploma, but it is also through continuous professional development with small, timely, continuous professional development, CPD, events on diverse topics, including higher educational policy. Recently, we had a CPD event for academic leaders in learning, teaching and assessment to give managers with responsibility for resource allocation the appropriate skills to better support this. Key within that is the focus on assessment and feedback.
One thing I would like to see developed and encouraged is a change to some of the assessment and feedback practices. We have elicited a number of initiatives and research founded through teaching fellowships, etc. to recognise good practice and to feed this back into models which are scalable.
Alongside that, it is about eliciting curriculum change and working with programme leaders and programme teams in order that there is a discussion about the holistic experience of students, from the pre-entry first alert on the website, where they think they will do a particular course provided there is the support, before they come in, during the first year, through their programme and into the future. In looking to the merger as the Technological University for Dublin, TU4D, into the future, it is giving us an opportunity to work and to hear the students voice. When looking at our model for learning for our students, we can put in place a quality curriculum that would support this. That is very much about preparing our students and empowering them. It is about giving the opportunity to discover and to develop through flexible learning and also tailored support. Support is key and it needs to be timely, giving them the opportunity to practise in a safe environment with their peers and with colleagues and to be able to apply the theory in a timely manner.
I hope we manage to consolidate the theory and the experience into a package that provides the students with the skills to develop the graduate attributes and to leave as reflective practitioners into the future.
Professor Mary Gallagher:
I thank Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell for having organised this discussion. I am really happy to appear before the committee to speak about what I love, which is my work in higher education. It will not be just about my work, obviously. I need to state that I am not representing the views of UCD or speaking for UCD in any way. As the committee is aware, higher education is a very diverse sector and almost anything I say will be true of some of it but it will not be true of all of it. I just want to make that disclaimer. I know I am protected by a certain amount of privilege but I would probably need to be on some kind of witness protection programme to say some things that are probably true of the whole lot. Everybody is doing their best and there are still huge problems. I hope what I am going to say makes sense. I have tried to compress it into the seven minutes but I think that is sometimes at the cost of coherence.
The first subtitle I have is the idea of a national debate. I really think we need a national debate on higher education. It should focus on what Ireland wants from higher education. We have to make a distinction between higher education and further education. If one says "higher", one means superior, a higher order. It is a different thing. It is to educate at a higher level. What do we mean by "higher"? I think we might mean critical and creative thinking or, at least, a critical and creative engagement with detail and with depth in a given area. Of course, one needs a certain amount of knowledge and information to be able to engage in that way, but I think that is what we should be looking for from higher education in this country.
I took about two years out of my day job to write a book about what I think Ireland should be looking for from higher education. It took me about two years to write it and it was published in 2012. I called it Academic Armageddon: An Irish Requiem for High Education. I did not realise I needed to be in a witness protection programme before I would do something like that. It was to call attention to one major point - how making a business out of education, any education, including higher education, is really at the heart of our problem in this country, not just ours but in other countries too.
I think this is an organic problem which is starting to affect second level too. One sees it in all the language schools that we are forced to close in Ireland but one also sees the problems and tensions that exist between the private secondary schools and the public secondary schools, the fee-paying and the non-fee-paying schools, the grind schools and the institutes. Of course, education is an organic system. That is why I am appearing before the committee. The reason I called the book Academic Armageddonwas because what is happening in the western world, especially in the English-speaking or global world system, is that academic standards and academic integrity are being destroyed. What I mean by that is that in some cases a kind of a funny version of what is academic is being made into the be-all and end-all of everybody's life. It seems it has to be everybody's life. We have only one precious finite life, as Senator O'Donnell said. We all have finite lives. All our youth are being told academic success is the be-all and end-all. I really think that is what is destroying academic standards. It is curious. They are victims of their own sort of success. When that book came out, it came out to silence; no public refutation but no public response. I think that if even 10% of the analysis of that book was well-founded, it would have merited a national debate. I really do think that.
What do I think we should do in Ireland? We should stop allowing higher education institutions to be run as competitive businesses. Of course, they are not all run as competitive businesses but some are and there is a trend. We should stop pretending that it is possible to take the studying out of studenting, that one can be a student without studying. That is not possible. We should stop pretending that students are clients. We should stop letting them think that is what their contract is with the higher education institution and also stop pretending that 85% of Ireland's youth are academically inclined and should be going to university because these are all, in my view, damaging lives. I was going to point to Germany but we all know about how it avoids this damage and how, as a result, apprenticeships rather than degrees are so highly valued and why France is trying to imitate Germany. France points to Germany. In Germany why are such able people going into apprenticeships and France is trying to go that way? Either Irish school leavers are up to 50% more academically inclined and talented than their European peers or else they are being misdirected into further academic endeavour when they would be probably better suited to following a less pseudo-academic training, whatever that might be. I definitely think that England, the US and Australia, not Scotland, are the wrong models for us to look towards as a university because that is where the most intractable problems are coming from, the atrocious idea of exorbitant tuition fees, whoever pays them, included.
If, as I believe, the Anglo, aka global, brand is toxic, it is linked to the spread of a zombie culture in higher education wherever it is applied. We should be looking to more free, responsible, sane, healthy, independent northern European models instead. I do not know why we have chosen to copy the worst of the Anglo global world. All Anglo businesses, Anglo universities, are in common market competition with each other and they all see branding as the answer. We have it on the radio before the six o'clock news where they are fighting for customers.
Distinguishing the university from its so-called competitors is of the essence.
They are synonymous always with extortionary prices. That is what distinguishes those awful little shoes one can get in Dunnes Stores for a fiver. My children wear the Converse brand. They are just a brand but they ruin one's feet the same way as the little flat runners from Dunnes Stores. Be aware of branding.
If one is a business, one does not necessarily have time to focus on the education part but in so far as the corporate university focuses on education, it is bent on increasing student throughput and retention. What that means in practice is not awarding fail grades. There is also a focus on staff performance but I cannot go there because I do not have time. This is becoming a terrible problem. The real causes of poor retention figures are not just the plunging staff-student ratios - in other words, a funding issue - or an exodus of experienced staff into early retirement, etc., and recessionary cuts, but also the shameful codding of school leavers into university. What we see happening at the educational chalk face is an almost irresistible dumbing down of academic subjects. One might say, "So what?" In my subject there is an awful lot of "what" about that. I teach French and either a student can read French and understand what he or she is reading or her or she cannot. Either he or she can write French that someone else is going to understand or he or she cannot. Either he or she can speak and understand what somebody else is saying or he or she cannot. When one is awarding a D minus grade, one is saying a person can do none of those things but one is getting the student over the hump and one is not getting grief from the system that is bearing down on one to push the student through. Failure is just not acceptable. It is very difficult to do it.
Professor Mary Gallagher:
I will move to the shutting down of hard subjects. We do that too. We get the students through but we also shut down hard subjects. The school of languages has been shut down totally in Coleraine in the University of Ulster. There are no language courses any more because they are too hard and too many people fail. One can see where that is going.
The next problem is compliant academics. People try to stop academics from doing what I am doing now, and I am really enjoying it because I do not get the chance to do this very much.
How does one balance education and research? These are the problems. We have to keep doing research but how do we balance the two? How do we balance educating students and at the same time doing our research?
My last point is about the teaching and learning industry. I apologise to Dr. Jen Harvey for using the word "industry" because it sounds a bit derogatory and I do not mean it in that way. How is the teaching and learning industry going to address those problems? Every institution has teaching and learning units embedded all over. They are focusing on "how", but who is focusing on the "what" and who is focusing on the "why"? I will end there because I have gone on for long enough.
Dr. Greg Foley:
I thank Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell for the invitation. I teach in DCU. I will come back to that word in a minute or two. I do research and I am also the associate dean so I have a triple mandate. That is a key point. It is not that I am particularly interesting because that is typical of academics within the sector in that they do a lot of things. This takes me to my main point which is that the word "teaching" in a university context is problematic. We are not teachers in the sense of second level teachers. Third level is fundamentally different from second level or at least it should be unless we want to radically change our vision of third level. I agree very much with Professor Mary Gallagher that we do not have a proper vision as to what third level should be.
I said that also in my submission's conclusion. All sorts of stakeholders have differing views. Employers see it as training while many people, in particular students and their parents, see it as an extended form of second level. The Government, in particular the current Government in recent years, has seen it as an engine of economic growth as if that can be separated from its educational brief.
The multifaceted nature of third level education is absolutely key. Although this might get me into a little bit of trouble, I must say that initiatives such as the national forum for the enhancement of teaching and learning in higher education are fundamentally flawed in that they do not take account of the triple mandate, at least, that an ordinary academic has. Most academics will do some research, some teaching and some administration and they will parcel out those roles slightly differently. Unless we take into account that the culture in third level education is fundamentally different from second level, we will go down blind alleys and eventually we will just try to reproduce what is done in second level at third level. That would be a real shame. That is my basic premise.
I do not know what it is that we do. We do not just lecture. I do laboratory modules, tutorials and a lot of active learning in the classroom so I am not just a lecturer, but I do not think of myself as a teacher. If one looks at the key difference between third level and second level education, it is the role played by independent learning. A typical module in the STEM disciplines will have four hours of independent learning for every hour of contact. That is radically different from second level so when one hears various stakeholders, politicians included, making statements about the lack of contact time, they are misunderstanding third level education. An educator in the third level sector guides somebody, charts a course through a subject for him or her and perhaps explains things and is there to support the student. He or she inspires and motivates students but he or she is not a teacher. We really have to get that into our heads.
I agree with Professor Mary Gallagher that there is a teaching and learning industry out there. I heard somebody refer to it as the "T and L-aliban", a sort of take on the Taliban. There is a culture of fear that if one does not adopt what are student-centred methods, one will get very poor reviews from students.
SIPTU did a recent survey in DCU where some staff actually felt bullied by students because the demands were so great. I frequently answer e-mails at night from students. In my kitchen this morning, while eating my Shreddies, I was answering e-mails from students on my telephone because they have an examination tomorrow. It has become very student-centred. The table in page two of my submission shows the enormous administrative load that lecturers are under between student surveys of teaching and student reps. Next week, I will be inundated with students coming to my office to look at exam scripts to get feedback and for me to justify my marks. We have annual programme reviews, periodic programme reviews, quality reviews, professional reviews and we have tracking systems for students. Anyone who says that teaching and learning is not taken seriously at third level is seriously wrong. In fact, I think that so far we have created a dependency culture and that is not good.
I will depart from what I was going to say and refer to the drop out rates because it came up last week. It relates to some of the things Professor Mary Gallagher said. The HEA produces reports on drop out, although I should not say "drop out". They are non-progression rates because the students come back into the system. The only single metric one can use to predict drop out is what is called prior academic achievement. The courses that have high drop out are low point courses. We are taking people into demanding courses who are just not academically up to it. They have got such low points that they are probably getting their seventh, eighth or ninth choice, so they have picked the wrong course because they are academically on the weaker end of the spectrum.
One of the issues that has come up through the forum is whether university lecturers should have a formal qualification in teaching. My own opinion is "No". It would nice to know a little more cognitive science, for example, but it is something that is a "nice to do" rather than a "need to do".
It does not take into account the fact that if the culture of a university values research, having an educational qualification or continuing professional development will degenerate into box ticking. Somebody will do a postgraduate diploma and use whatever means they can to get promoted. Usually, the quickest way to do this is to excel at research.
The fundamental barrier to improving teaching is the fact it is very difficult to measure the quality of teaching. Good teaching is defined as that activity which improves student learning. However, there are many ways to do this. The two best lecturers I ever had in my career were Frank MacLoughlin at UCD, who has retired, and someone at Cornell University. One used an overhead projector and the other used a blackboard and chalk. They were inspirational and fantastic teachers. My fear is that the teaching and learning industry will generate into ideology, as it has with Ofsted in the UK, and that if one is not teaching in a certain student-centred way, it will be perceived as not being dedicated to teaching. I have a real fear of this. I know many very good lecturers who do not do anything particularly innovative and are not visible as excellent teachers. They may be excellent researchers but they teach very well in the background and are not making a song and dance about it.
Cuts to higher education funding have been ongoing. I am an engineer. I tend to be a bit of a nerd with data and I go back and look at things. The cuts in higher education preceded the global financial crisis. They date back to 2006 at least. There has been a mindset among policymakers that, for whatever reason, higher education, university education and third level education should not be funded to the same extent as primary and second level education. This is a mindset issue. It is particularly visible in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, disciplines. I find it quite difficult to understand how this disconnect occurs. Last October or November, the Government launched its capital investment plan, Building on Recovery, to run to 2020. In this it pledged to spend €27 billion, including an increase in funding for research, innovation and job creation from €2.9 billion to €5 billion by 2020. Included in this is an expectation to increase PhD numbers by 30% and postdoctoral researcher numbers by 30%. At the same time, it committed €110 million to higher education. These figures make no sense because the pipeline for research and innovation and for those PhD students is their undergraduate education, particularly their experience in undergraduate laboratories.
There is a crisis in terms of the funding of laboratories in every institution. This will probably get me into trouble because I am saying something that does not reflect well on us. However, I say it because it is typical of the sector. I brought a panel of biopharma people around our laboratories as part of a quality review. They were very complimentary and stated that we do great work. When I brought them to one particular laboratory, there was an audible gasp when they saw how out of date the equipment was. Much can be done with very little in education and we can still teach the basics but laboratories throughout the country use equipment connected to computers which look like they were built by Alan Sugar in the 1980s. There is a real crisis. I find extraordinary the disconnect between the rhetoric of the knowledge economy and willingness to fund the grassroots. I do not quite understand why it is the case. It is like in sport where people suddenly decide to put millions into elite athletes, as was done in England for cycling. Doing so wins gold medals but meanwhile the grassroots die. This is a real danger here. The CAO preferences for science and applied science have been dropping since 2013.
I have a feeling we have been operating in a science bubble and that, as the economy picks up, we will see a lack of interest in science. People think this will go on for ever and we will have all of these PhD graduates. However, what if we do not provide an undergraduate experience of having well-equipped laboratories? I am not stating that everything has to be off the shelf or the latest model but it must be better than 1990s equipment. Unless we commit to this, no number of foreign students - or any other methods universities are trying at present - will solve the capital investment problem. We are addressing it in DCU. I will not say how we are getting the money but people probably know. We are actually doing it because it has come to a stage where we must. We can longer teach laboratory courses, which are a big part of STEM education, unless there is serious investment. The greatest crisis affecting the higher education system is that we are not putting in capital investment. It must be a rolling plan. There must be a commitment every year in every budget that X million will be spent on higher education.
I truly believe third level education is about a partnership between the lecturer or educator and the students. I love my job. I love working with students. It keeps me young. I gave a tutorial yesterday and it was just good fun. There are times when it is really good fun and I really like students. There is a problem in that the nature of modern culture is such that students find it very difficult to put in the graft required. I feel quite aggrieved if I am criticised or assessed on the basis of a vision of third level education which presumes I should behave like a secondary school teacher. Students must play their part. If we look at the Irish survey of student engagement, the results of which are on page 6 of my submission, approximately 45% of students do fewer than five hours of independent study per week. This is bad in the STEM subjects but it is even worse in the humanities where students need to do a lot of reading. One could not read a single book in a week with that level of study. We have a cultural problem as well as a funding problem and various other issues.
To go back to what Professor Gallagher stated, we need a conversation on what third level is supposed to be. In saying this, I fear we would end up with a talking shop whereby everybody would just give their tuppence worth and matters would go nowhere. Everybody is probably aware of the Growing Up in Ireland survey, which is fantastic and which has informed child development. We need something like this for education. We could do it very quickly because those involved in the Growing Up in Ireland survey have done it. From 2017, we could track 10,000 students. It can be done. We have a very good track record in Ireland for doing this. They could be followed over the next ten or 20 years. Let us begin to use evidence to inform our education policy because it is dominated by anecdote, hearsay and the experiences of people who went to college 30 years ago. We spend so much that we need this database. This is my big suggestion.
I thank the Chairman. I have been a member of the committee for three or four years and this has been one of the most provocative half hours I have experienced in a long time. I do not know where to start. This matter is close to my heart because I have spent a great deal of my life as a teacher at third level. I was considered a pariah at one point. I recall a director of education in the university informing me "This is a research institution" and then walking off. I did not know where I was on the campus at the time. I am more interested in hearing what my colleagues have to say because I do not want to bring my own ideologies or prejudices to bear on this matter.
I wish to pick up on something Dr. Foley stated. There is a rewarding of failure. This is evident at second level where if somebody fails higher level mathematics, this is equivalent to obtaining a pass at lower level.
In all my time at university we did not fail students. We tried every way possible to pass them. We did not want to fail them, and if they failed, we did not like it and we pulled them up from a mark of 32 to 36 to 38 to try to pass them. Only if they did nothing were they in the realms of failure. That is a massive change. Therefore, when we talk about quality of teaching we are also talking about quality of learning. It is not just quality of teaching.
With regard to tracking students, is Dr. Foley aware of any surveys that have been done on this? We track them monetarily because we constantly look for money from them as alumni.
We will continue, because some of them are very good and will have their own questions.
We do not track students regarding the quality of teaching they receive. One way to discover whether they are well taught is to ask them whether they were well taught, and in what way were they well taught - not who taught well or who taught badly, but how did the fact of being well taught find its way into their life or their next port of call? Were they ever asked this?
Dr. Greg Foley:
It has got much more bureaucratic. There is huge input from students nowadays. However, regarding the idea of tracking them through their careers, people get wiser as they get older and they look back on their education with slightly different eyes and maybe appreciate it more. We certainly find that when most of our graduates come back to us they are very complimentary. Sometimes, in the thick of things - when a student has not done well in an exam, for example - it is not necessarily the best time to ask him or her. There is a lot of literature on this. If one considers how valuable student surveys of teaching are, for example, they are very often popularity contests and are not really objective assessments of quality of learning. In fact, a very recent study produced in Italy showed that ratings in student surveys were inversely proportional to the amount the students learned. What I have found over the years is that students love a teacher who makes life easy for them. If a teacher is very organised, provides students with absolutely everything they need and minimises the need to go to the library and do extra work, they will think the teacher is great. That is why I like the idea of tracking students over a decade or more.
But it seems to me that Dr. Foley, in his paper, does not come down on the side of what is good teaching or excellence in teaching and that he says it cannot be this, that or the other. I completely disagree with him because when he told us about his youth he remembered teachers who absolutely inspired him with a piece of chalk or an overhead projector. I believe that there are such things as very inspiring teachers.
It is a cop out to say that it cannot be assessed and that we cannot stand up and say "In this institution or university, this is how we value great teachers, and this is what we think a good, quality or inspiring teacher is." We skirt around all that with, as Dr. Foley says, these little Spar shops or hubs called teaching and learning units. Another thing Dr. Foley said about himself was that he was not a teacher, yet he is an associate dean for teaching and learning. So he is a teacher, because he-----
I know. We do not want a bust-up conversation between Dr. Foley and myself because we could have that any time.
It is not hard to measure learning. It will depend on the subject and the area, such as the humanities versus the sciences, and there are different ways of assessing many things. I disagree with Dr. Foley. It is another cop-out. It is another lowering of standards, because we will not articulate what we want to see. It is a bit of this, that and the other and a bit of nothing.
Some studies say not to do this, some say not to assess that, and some say "Oh no, that is not the way to do it". We end up back in the Spar shop not knowing what it is at all, when in actual fact we do know what it is.
I was interested in what the witnesses said about the transition from second to third level education and how they think that could be better attended to. There seems to be a huge mattress dip there. I am also interested in the area of education and business. There is so much to ask the witnesses and so much to talk about. What would they do differently on the transition from second to third level? Do they think that it should be a prerequisite for anybody teaching in third level to have a teaching certificate showing that they are highly qualified?
Dr. Jen Harvey:
Absolutely. I believe that all teachers at third level should have a teaching qualification of some kind, although it is important what that qualification is. It is not a tick-box exercise that involves sitting down and learning about cognitive science or some other subject. In our institution, we made the policy decision to invest in our staff and it is very resource-intensive to provide the support for postgraduate diplomas for all new staff, unless they are completing a PhD. I must admit that there were various reservations initially as to whether this was a good policy, and how motivated people would be within that. On day one, we had a couple of people sitting there, arms folded, with an attitude of "I have to be here." However, these academics recognised that one of the most important aspects of the programme is not just the tool set or the menu of options that is being provided to them through this experience, but the safe space, the time in which they can amend their practices and look at what they are doing as teachers. They can come and talk about issues they are facing in a structured way. They can look at others by going to visit them in a very supportive way, in the style of tutor observation. For example, a scientist can go and see what somebody else is doing in photography by arrangement, and is in turn asked for feedback on how the students are doing this or that. One learns an enormous amount by looking and seeing what other people are doing. Most people will only teach the way they were taught or based on whatever their experience was. By providing the academics with a range of different opportunities, although they might like some better than others, we are giving them the option of making selections afterwards.
It is very much a practice-based programme. I am not saying it is absolutely the best, as I may be a bit biased. It is portfolio-based in terms of its assessment: there is a range of evidence that those taking part present as part of a portfolio submission, and we support them through this. It deals with a lot of the challenges with regard to the transition to third level and reflecting on assessment and feedback. On the point mentioned by Dr. Foley, one of the major challenges in starting out as an academic is that one is pulled in all directions. The new academic is supposed to be researching, doing administration and trying to get his or her head around it all, and usually, as the new person, has the worst teaching possible. There are maybe 19 contact hours with students, which the academic must design and develop. A programme that provides support over the academic's first or second year is invaluable because it gives him or her the time, the opportunity and the safe space to say "I am having a problem with this," "I am not sure how to do that," or "Has anybody else faced this challenge?". To compare it to a traditional second level education certificate is perhaps not the best way of doing it, because we are not all the same.
Dr. Jen Harvey:
When people look at a postgraduate diploma they tend to think of it in the same way as a second level certificate, although I am not saying Senator O'Donnell would do so. Academics who have gone through our programme have said it is transformational in that it encourages them to be reflective practitioners, to look at where the issues are and also to have a menu of options to think about how they might do things differently. Particularly with the use of new technologies and various other things, where else would academics have the opportunity to try these things out and to work together and support each other?
In the past I might not have believed that everybody should undertake a postgraduate qualification. Now I think it is a really good idea if it is the right qualification and it is done in the right way where it is structured and supported. I would be very concerned if a policy was brought in where such education just became a person sitting in a lecture theatre ticking a box kind of exercise to gain a certificate.
Professor Mary Gallagher:
It is a tricky question. I do not like the idea of adopting a one-size-fits-all approach. That might develop but it would depend. It cannot be a bad thing that people would be required, if they do not do so spontaneously, to understand what they are supposed to be doing and what this is all about. Many people think that teaching is a doddle and that anyone can teach. They think that if one knows a subject that one can teach it but there is much more to teaching. It is a bit like nursing. Most vocations or professions are about experience with reflection so to be encouraged to reflect would be more important to me. I would be worried about the qualification becoming a box ticking exercise. We are absolutely plagued with it and such an approach has subsumed our culture to a certain point. I promised myself that I would not say the following but I am going to do so. About three years ago I applied to be promoted from an associate professor to a full professor. Earlier Dr. Foley said, in a rather throwaway remark, that research is what secures promotion and he is right.
Professor Mary Gallagher:
-----the pendulum has swung back from where it had gone far too far towards research. All that counted was research. For various reasons, UCD did not want to promote me in that promotion round. Basically, UCD decided to say that I was unsuccessful because my teaching was very mediocre. I do not know many things but I do know that I am a pretty good teacher. I know this because my students have told me that I have helped them which is good enough for me. I have proof that I can help students to love a subject and want to study it. I model things for them and they learn. I must say I found it very difficult to be told that I had not done enough CPD courses.
Dr. Greg Foley:
I have mixed feelings about this matter as well. One of the key things I would do if I was proposing that everybody should have a postgraduate in education or whatever, is that I would look elsewhere, see what the evidence is and assess whether it makes people better teachers. Logically, one would think that it would but does it really? This goes back to my point that education should be evidence-based as much as possible if one is going to impose a certain workload. Let us remember that when a new academic is appointed, and this is particularly the case in STEM disciplines, he or she must work night and day to set up labs and recruit postgraduates to carry out research in order to get papers out as quickly as possible. That is an extra load on a new academic. A lot of teaching is discipline specific. How I go about teaching engineering is very different from how someone else would go about teaching his or her subject.
Dr. Greg Foley:
As Professor Gallagher said, teaching is about reflection but I believe it is also about trying things, seeing whether they work and getting used to pitching the material.
Content and getting to pitch it are important. For example, I teach as part of a multidisciplinary biotechnology programme at DCU. I have realised that it takes a number of years working on the job before one gets to be able to pitch the material at the right level. I would prefer if one had a mentor who had been through the process and there was some sort of organised system where new staff members must reflect on what they are doing.
It is a development within communication because all good teaching is about communication on whatever level, and that is what I mean. Sometimes people have PhDs, master's and other experiences but they cannot communicate. Teaching is really about training in the art, craft and skill of communication at the level that one wants that communication to come in at.
I thank the Chairman. The word "education" is derived from the Latin term educo, which means to lead out, which is the task for anyone who is a teacher or lecturer. One is an educator and as such one must be able to communicate. Looking back through the mists of time I recall some of my lecturers. One was John Killeen and another was Michael Jordan, who was an amazing man and Neil Jordan's father. Both men were great communicators who inspired their students and gave everyone the added value to move on. Unfortunately, not everybody has such attributes. One can improve oneself through communication and education courses. One can learn to stand before a large number of people and improve on one's delivery. However, education costs an awful lot of money nowadays and parents invest so much in their children. Research is hugely important and one of my daughters is in research at Maynooth University. If one pays a lot of money, and even if one is not paying but the State is, one is entitled to a proper standard of education. I do not know whether we should call students clients or customers but I know that when one buys a product one is a customer, in my opinion.
I am not saying one should get a higher standard because maybe one already has that. I am saying that one is entitled to a high standard. Dr. Foley has said that young people today are lazy, inattentive and very difficult to deal with. The other day I read some material that claimed the same but it was written in 400 BC by a man called Plato. If young people have continued to deteriorate since that time then they must be awful nowadays.
Yes. James Stephens wrote in his book entitledThe Crock of Gold that "Women are wiser than men because they know less and understand more".
He was referring particularly to the Corrigans of Carlow. As those present might know, Illich said-----
How did the Senator know? Ivan Illich said that the aim of all educators is to make themselves redundant and to be disgraced by the knowledge of their students. One thing I am saying is that there is a role for some type of quality assessment of the level of educational skills of university teaching and lecturing staff.
Dr. Greg Foley:
I would like to reply to the Senator's final comment by drawing his attention to table 1 on page 2 of my submission, which sets out the mechanisms that are in place in DCU and which, I think, are typical of all institutions. We are overloaded with quality mechanisms. There is a huge amount of goodwill there. This is in total contrast to the position in the 1980s, when I was a student. We had buckets of lecturers who were so bad they were good. We knew that they were hopeless and that we had to teach ourselves. That worked at that time. Nowadays, the mechanisms are huge. As I said earlier, next week after I have marked my scripts my office will be like a dentist's office because there will be queues of people outside my door. I will have to justify the marks I have given to my students. That is something that would never have happened-----
I will explain what I was actually saying. I accept that the quality of the learning experience is tied in with the quality of the teaching. I am specifically talking about the educators themselves. I am not talking about the relationship in the first instance. The relationship is a fortiori. I am talking about discrete forms of communication and I am not contradicting what was said about communication strategies. The era when some lecturers in colleges could just get up and say "blah, blah" for three quarters of an hour-----
Professor Mary Gallagher:
I would like to respond to the interesting points that have been made. By and large - I do not know whether this applies in every subject or every discipline - I would not call lecturing teaching at all. There is no relating going on in lectures. Nowadays, an awful lot of lectures are put up on Blackboard, as we call it.
Dr. Jen Harvey:
I would like to refer to what Professor Gallagher said about the actual purpose of higher education. This links in with the debate we have been having about the quality of teaching. We have moved on from the imparting of information. I think the role of educators in higher education is now much more than that. Our role is to equip our students to be lifelong learners when the information they are getting now is well and truly redundant. At a time when students can avail of extracurricular activities and many opportunities to engage with external communities, etc., the provision of an enriched educational experience must involve more than sitting or standing in a classroom.
As an institution, we have been involved in considering what teaching quality is in terms of granting awards to academic staff. I have been involved in various processes through the years and there is a challenge in defining quality of teaching. We have gone through models whereby students make nominations or academics submit portfolios. I have never been particularly comfortable with any of these measures. Last year we introduced a new model whereby students made 1,100 nominations for academic staff members. It was one of the most positive things I have ever seen because we heard about the inspirational teacher who really captured the essence of a problem and inspired students. For example, there was somebody who, in a moment of despair, did not know where to turn, and an academic had spent lots of time working with the student. Another academic had really built up a student's confidence. There were many such amazing examples. Linking into what Dr. Foley said, now an academic needs to be so many things to so many people and therefore needs to be able to support and inspire in everything he or she does.
I return to the argument that we need to be able to provide people with the toolkit with which they can do this. We now have to cater for students who use new technologies. The skills of being able to mediate and moderate online are very different to those of being able to inspire and engage students in a classroom or those of providing supports and one-to-one tutorials. That is an amazing skill set. Sorry, I am babbling but it is definitely something to support because most of the academics with whom I work and the ones who select to engage after the diploma want to try all these different things. Once they have the core skills, they want to review their assessment and feedback strategies, they want to know whether there is a continuing professional development course through which they can do this, they want to move online and they will ask whether there is an online course through which they can learn from a student's perspective. We should not generalise too much about everything. If we can provide academics with all these resources, that is key. It is not just always about general resourcing, it also involves where that resourcing goes and, linking into what Professor Gallagher said, getting parity of esteem between teaching and research - and nothing else. We must recognise the importance of that and the skill set that we give to our students or encourage them to develop while they are with us. It is much more than lots of information.
I thank Dr. Harvey, Professor Gallagher and Dr. Foley for attending. It has been an extremely interesting and timely debate and I thank Senator O'Donnell for requesting it. I hope the committee will forgive me if I wander a little as I try to make the points that I want to make.
Every year when I see graduation photographs in the newspaper, I wonder how many plasterers, motor mechanics and electricians have been lost to academia. Our value system in this country seems to have gone wrong somewhere. We pride ourselves on having the best education system in the world but we are driving square pegs into round holes at an unmerciful rate and that really bothers me. Regarding teaching and learning - we are talking here about third-level teaching and learning in particular - Dr. Foley's point was, for me, instructive. He sees himself as a mentor, not a teacher. I believe that to be his proper position. The expectations in transitioning from second level to third level education are wrong. We have grown in expectation that we will be taken by the hand through the entire education system by a kindly teacher who will always put us on the right track. We have gone out of our way to build systems to support that type of thinking.
Dr. Harvey mentioned Blackboard, Moodle and other such things. In 1996, I went to Holland for the first time to look at electronic learning systems and I introduced them into further education in the same year.
There was an expectation with the Moodle platform that an educator could put everything on it, sit back and interact every now and then. There was a very interesting conversation - I think it was in DIT - where a lecturer from one of the institutes of technology pointed out that he had gone to all the trouble of putting videos and exercises online, but when he carried out a piece of research he found that he had the same number of failures as before. He called in those who had failed and asked them what went wrong. One of them said he hadn't got up on Monday morning because "I don't get up for lectures on Monday, and it would all be online anyway." The lecturer asked why he had not availed of the online resource in that case, but the student told him he had never got around to it. Going back to the point Dr. Foley made, there is an expectation that students will be managed through the system.
There are a few key areas for me which I am interested in today. Where is the HEA? Why does it not have a representative here? I would love to hear its view on teaching and learning in third level education. I would like to see something in the area of mentor training rather than teaching. I do not believe that teaching, if we look upon it as second level teaching, fits the model for third level. I am deeply concerned by the casualisation of teaching and lecturing in third level institutions. It is happening right across our education system and I believe it is to the detriment of the system. The loyalty that would have existed to the institution is no longer there. If anything, we see ourselves as being in conflict with the institution rather than being a loyal member of it. There is also the issue of the disappearance, or the dumbing down, of the hard subjects. As I throw these points out, I welcome Dr. Foley's comments on them.
I have spoken on a number of occasions about the need for language education. We visited Helsinki recently with Senator Healy Eames. A 12 year old child walking through a school stopped and asked me how Ireland was coping with the crisis. When I asked him which crisis, he said, "The economic crisis." He spoke in perfect English. We had a brief conversation about it and I told him his English was excellent. I asked him if he also spoke Swedish and Finnish. "Oh, I do," he said, "and German and Russian, but my German is a little poor." I remember having a debate in which I wanted to bring one language into further education, and they said, "No, we do not do languages here." And here we are, sitting in the European Union, with no languages.
I can see the Chairman looking at me so I will get through this as quickly as I can. We now have private providers delivering teaching and learning programmes for further education and secondary education. I cannot for the life of me understand why we are churning out thousands of teachers for whom we have no jobs. The third level system was already in place, and I would be interested in Dr. Foley's comments on that.
Dr. Foley's table is instructive on the amount of diverse activities that one must carry out as an educator today. We seem to be driven by outputs. Everything is about outputs today. It is about the number of students who started, what modules they took, and the number who passed. As Dr. Foley said, not only does one have to correct the scripts; one also has a plethora of students outside the door waiting for an explanation as to why they did badly, or well, as the case may be. Then the returns must be sent to some department head, who in turn will collate those and send them up the line. Ultimately, they will finish up with some politician saying that 24% of students did a, b, and c. It is a nonsense, to my mind. I believe - I would be interested in Dr. Foley's comments on this - that if we were to talk about teaching and learning, we could leave that nonsense aside. We have actually started to concentrate on feeding the machine, and the machine is the university system that needs money. We have taken the money from the universities but we still expect the same outputs. Maybe we should shrink the student population and start moving into research. Maybe there should be a greater emphasis on research. I will finish on that, and I apologise if I have dragged the discussion all over the third level education system.
I want to make a couple of comments before bringing in Senator Healy Eames. I wish to emphasise that this discussion relates to third level education, or higher education. This includes the institutes of technology, but the other third level institutes are also relevant. As I was saying to Senator O'Donnell before the meeting, my father was a lecturer at DIT in Kevin Street, and one of the things he did was to run a course for other lecturers about teaching at third level. That was back in the 1970s. There was some kind of structure back then, but obviously not as advanced as it is now.
That is fair enough. I agree that there is a need to develop the apprenticeship system, but I do not agree with the idea that some people are not suitable for university or for third level and should instead be in apprenticeships. People do not get the points for certain courses for various reasons. Perhaps they were disadvantaged from the outset, right back to when they were three years of age. Everybody should have an opportunity to go to university or third level college at some stage of their lives, whenever it suits them or they want to do it. If they want to look at a bit of medicine at one stage of their lives and a bit of history or social science at another stage, my feeling is that they should be able to do so.
I do but I do not think one is exclusive of the other. We should have the view that higher education is open to people at any stage of their lives. We should not say of any individual that higher education will never be for him or her. I suggest we should model the funding of our system around that. I went through third level. I do not know what higher education is like now because I am not in it. I do not have a clue. I know what I experienced at the time and it was mixed. I found it very hard to make the transition from second level to third level, but I muddled through all the same. We hear people saying now that this is happening to them as well. Obviously, some people have the same experience as me. Teachers at second level are looking at moving away from the traditional imparting of knowledge. I hope this whole idea will help third level education. It is not just at higher education that this is needed. It is needed at all levels. It is clear that there will be junior certificate reform, regardless of the shape that reform takes. The NCCA engaged in consultation on how to introduce reforms as part of the attempt to have a curriculum based around the idea of critical thinking. When third level institutions are examining how to improve the content and quality of teaching at third level, do they engage with their students? Dr. Foley mentioned a survey. If this matter were being examined now, what could be done to improve it? Is there consultation? The NCCA definitely engaged in consultation on the reform of the junior certificate curriculum. Is there any corresponding consultation in the case of these reforms? That is just the question I have.
I apologise for being late. I had to speak on flooding in the Seanad. Those present will be aware that half the country is under water. I welcome the witnesses. I used to be a lecturer at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick. I congratulate Senator O'Donnell, who is a former lecturer of mine, for putting this issue on the agenda. I am sorry that I missed the witnesses' exposés on this issue. I have a huge interest in the quality of teaching in higher level education. If the witnesses have already answered my questions, I will be happy to read those answers in the Official Report.
I am very conscious of the relationship that needs to exist between students and lecturers. There are high numbers of students in lecture halls. I heard Professor Gallagher say that no relating goes on in lecturing. I would not completely agree with that. Some people are amazing raconteurs and storytellers with an ability to communicate. They are inspirational in their own right. I am talking about undergraduates, in particular. I have a son in first year. I know all his peers. I know the attrition rates are very high and it is a deep concern. I also know about the mental health issues among our young people. In particular, I know about the number of accidental deaths and suicides in that age group. I spent a good number of days over Christmas looking for a body in Oranmore.
We found him after 20 days. In the previous eight months, there was another case. Where I live in Oranmore, eight bodies are found every year. That is terrible.
In the exchange between Senator Craughwell and Dr. Foley, I heard the word "mentor". Would a lecturer meet each of his or her students once in a semester or in a year? Have they proposals on building a relationship? One never knows who reaches a young person, be it for teaching and learning, or to see how they are managing away from home. What scaffolds are in place to build more interaction with students outside the engagement with the student who has failed? Have the colleges put proactive measures in place to build a relationship with students? I presume the witnesses are not merely talking about their own practices but what happens in higher education generally.
Would a lecturer have a goal to meet student each once in a semester? I know it is not all about face time because many young people like online time. Will the witnesses address the question from both face to face time, which I think is very important, and online time?
We need to save students from dropping out. I believe intervention at the correct time will save them but it is a matter of reaching them. I have a significant issue with the fact that colleges will not give information to parents once the student is over 18 years. Who is paying the fees? Parents pay the fees. Young people are only feeling their own wings; they are wild. I understand the importance of respecting that they are 18 years or older, but not all students have that level of maturity. The level of attrition of students during their first year of college is 29% in the ITs and the average in universities is 11%, a figure which is probably outdated now. That is too high a loss to the system. Not only have parents lost a significant amount of money, the State too is at a considerable loss but above all it is a major personal loss to the student. From personal experience across the board and my time in the field of education I can speak about their disappointment.
What impact has the contribution of Professor Sarah Moore to the awards made on teaching and learning in third level? She is somebody who could contribute to our proceedings today. I note that representatives from the HEA are not present.
What impact is the investment in the national forum having? It is a relatively new development in higher level education.
We had a good conference last year in NUIG on reforming third level education and the issues that need to be addressed are languages, which has been mentioned, career guidance-----
Chairman, I will finish on this sentence.
The issues that are of real concerns are languages, career guidance, attrition levels, apprenticeships and the casualisation of posts. What can we do to help third level education?
Dr. Greg Foley:
Senator Craughwell was concerned about the fact that we are herding students into third level education. I do not think the argument should be third level or apprenticeships because apprenticeships are dependent on the economy at the time. One cannot suddenly decide to train 1,000 plasterers if there are no jobs. I think the major problem in the third level sector is that it is becoming too homogenous.
Let us look at the first preferences for levels 6 and 7. Back in 2006 there were 40,000 first preferences for levels 6 and 7 courses and 50,000 for level 8.
The number of students who list a course at levels 6 and 7 as their first preference has dropped to 35,000, where the first preference choice for level 8 course has risen to 65,000. What is happening is that students want a level 8 course or nothing. It is no surprise that the dropout rates are highest at levels 6 and 7, even if those students have the same points as those at level 8. We are now at the point where level 6 and 7 qualifications are viewed as inferior as students want level 8 qualifications or nothing. I think the homogenisation of the third level sector will be aggravated when we have technological universities. We will have a third level education system that has 13 or 14 universities and nothing else. There will be no diversity in the system. I think all universities should have the power and should be willing to give students an exit route at level 7. There are many students in the system who are dragging through fourth year. We are seeing a new phenomenon of students failing in fourth year when they should go at level 7. Now level 7 is viewed as a substandard qualification. In ten years time everybody will try to get a place for a level 8 course in universities and no other type of college. Within that we could have a great deal of diversity that would suit people who might want to go to level 6 or level 7. Many of the level 8 graduates are doing level 6 and 7 jobs.
Professor Mary Gallagher:
Senator Craughwell made a number of relevant points. I agree absolutely that we are trying to put square pegs into round holes and that there is a need for mentoring. In regard to his point on the Higher Education Authority, HEA, to my knowledge there is nobody on the board of the authority who is an actual practitioner.
Professor Mary Gallagher:
The casualisation of posts has all the problems that Senator Craughwell mentioned plus others, including those that Dr. Foley mentioned. Staff are put in a position where they have no freedom for manoeuvre. The dumbing down of hard subjects is the issue I am most worried about. That private colleges such as Hibernia will be providing the staff who will be educators in our primary and secondary schools is something that I find very worrying.
Professor Mary Gallagher:
If any politician looking to sponsor one thing that would definitely make a difference, and it is not in higher education but would feed into higher education of the future, it is to help me to get a project going that would give all children in all primary schools at almost no cost - probably a couple of thousand euro - access to at least one non-alphabetical language, such as Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Japanese or Russian - one can choose. I think that is of major importance. I have developed a project which has been piloted in a number of schools but which will be dropped if it does not get a sponsor. We need a political sponsor as only that will work.
Dr. Jen Harvey:
My colleagues have addressed quite a number of his points and I agree with many of the points made. There needs to be much stronger discussion or liaison between further education, FE, and higher education. I do not think there is enough consideration of those pathways. We should be talking about how we can work better together. There is a drift upwards, because of student demand, to more level 8 courses. That is happening in many institutions and I think it is wrong. There should be much more discussion about the pathways because the system is very disjointed. We are not having the correct conversations. There is a value system for higher education that is not right.
I would like to hear the response to the questions I put.
Also, I will say something about the subject of Mandarin. I am involved with 20 schools in Galway where Mandarin Chinese is taught and I bring in two teachers from China each year via University College Cork.
We began this initiative as a result of the recession and it is going very well. However, it operates completely from the bottom up in the sense that the teachers come to me free and the schools then fund the accommodation, which is just €25 per week. It is a very good initiative. I started it because the former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, said that Chinese would be an optional subject on the junior certificate curriculum, although there is no sign of that now because there are such problems with the curriculum. We started preparing for this initiative four years ago, so it has been running for four years and it is going really well in Galway. We could talk about that separately, but I would love to hear Professor Gallagher's answers to my other questions.
Dr. Greg Foley:
My background is in STEM subjects; I am a chemical engineer and teach in a biotechnology programme. To return to Senator Craughwell's original point, we must get past the idea that third level education is about sitting in lecture halls. Studying a STEM subject exposes the student to a huge diversity of learning. He or she spends a lot of time in laboratories and undertakes research projects and group projects. I tend to teach small classes so I characterise much of my teaching as teaching by walking around. I do a lot of hands-on problem solving in the laboratories while I teach laboratory modules. I am glad the Senator raised the issue of big classes, because recently there has been a big push led by Professor Philip Nolan and the task group on reform of university selection and entry, TGRUSE, which is considering the whole area of transition. One of the current fads is the idea that all students should go into a general entry course and then make their decisions on the subjects in which they will specialise. That means that people are stuck into these large, impersonal classes while they are making that difficult transition from second level education. More often than not, resources will be such that they will have to be assigned to different disciplines on the basis of academic performance in first year.
Was the intention not to stop the phenomenon of certain courses becoming more exclusive? I went to Trinity College, for example, and at that time arts was split into different courses such as English and history. Since I left, new courses such as politics and French have been introduced. The effect of that was to make those courses exclusive, with higher points requirements, because there were only 12 places in a course such as law and German. My understanding was that the intention of generic-entry courses such as arts was to prevent certain courses from becoming high-end or elitist, and that after doing a general course, people could then specialise if they so wished.
Dr. Greg Foley:
That is the argument, but I believe it is fundamentally wrong. I have studied all the data on this and done large graphs of points requirements versus student intake and so on. University College Dublin, UCD, admits 400 students to its generic-entry science course, which has a requirement of 510 points. UCD has the largest intake of engineering students in the country for its engineering course, which has a requirement of 510 points. The most significant determiner of the amount of points required for admission to a course is the prestige of the institution, in my view. It is nothing to do with the course. Many of the degree programmes with very small intakes have very low points requirements, and the reason there is a low intake is that nobody wants to do the courses. Therefore, we should get rid of them because they are wasteful. The idea that there is an inverse relationship between intake and points is not true. Trinity College could admit a thousand students into, say, Business, Economic and Social Studies, and the points requirement would still be high. It is the prestige of the institution, and it is no coincidence that-----
Dr. Greg Foley:
-----is that it takes the pressure off them at leaving certificate. My fear is that in doing so, we will expose them to a dog-eat-dog culture in first year. For example, in Dublin City University we have eight science programmes. If we were to move to a big bang approach and provide for generic entry into science, there would be an absolute dogfight among students to get into biotechnology or genetics courses.
As an alternative to what Dr. Foley is saying about points, take electrical engineering, which on occasion has been a low-points course, although there would obviously be maths requirements. Some electrical engineering students, on relatively modest leaving certificate results, end up doing PhDs or working at the top end of the industry.
Judges, for example, would have had very basic leaving certificates, because at the time, one could nearly go in to university and say "I feel like doing medicine today," or whatever it was. There was a period of time like that. Some of those people would have ended up at the top end of their industries.
I understand the issue of the STEM subjects, but I am talking about the humanities, the liberal arts, and the teacher education, where there are hundreds and hundreds of students starting each year. Do we know if every lecturer, even now, is meeting their students one-on-one once in a term, semester or year?
Dr. Jen Harvey:
It depends. If we consider retention rates, that is another argument for having broad-based first year programmes. One finding of a search undertaken by the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning shows that the turnaround time for a decision on the places offered to students is very short. One of the issues it found was poor choices in students' selection of programmes. One day you get your leaving certificate results, and only a few weeks later you are in a course that you do not know much about. If it is not the course for you, you are quite likely to drop out. There is an argument, therefore, for broad-based courses. Having said that, however, if a course is too broad-based, maths and the various other subjects tend to be brought in, and if they are taught in a way that is particularly dissociated from engineering or science, students will disengage and be more likely to drop out.
In response to Senator Healy Eames's question about how often academics meet first year students, it does vary, but there is a crucial point by which, if a new student has not met with somebody internally, the chances are they will not feel a sense of belonging, or will not feel part of the community. In the larger classes, a lot of initiatives recently have been encouraging a peer mentoring system, under which continuing students or graduates come in to associate with smaller groups of students in a structured way; they get credits of some kind for this. That programme is helping to increase the sense of belonging. Part of the first year experience and the transition from second to third level is very traumatic, and the national forum has done a lot of work on that transition because its theme last year was advancement. There is a lot of commissioned work that is really valuable. It is important to see what does not work, what interventions are most important and when they are needed. When the commitment is made to take students in, they need to be supported through that journey. It is not enough to take them in on whatever points they get; they need to be supported. If there are students at risk, they need to be provided with associated support and at least consulted.
There is an issue with regard to students' ability to change course. A person who wishes to change must withdraw and reapply. If students make the wrong choice, the current system is not the best way of supporting them because they cannot go off and do another course if they decide that medicine, for example, would be better. There are a lot of difficulties in the system. I could talk a lot about transitions but I am aware that the time is going on.
It is a huge area, and an area that the Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection might have paid a little bit more attention to. The committee amalgamates the areas of education and social protection, which is ridiculous, because they are two cities in themselves and should never have been amalgamated into one committee. They both demand individual meetings twice a week.
I would like to ask the witnesses a creative question. The papers of all three witnesses were absolutely brilliant from completely different vantage points, personally and academically. I ask the witnesses, if they were Minister for Education and Skills or president of their universities, hypothetically and creatively, what is the one thing within third level education they would pinpoint as something that needs to be changed, added to or let go.
Dr. Jen Harvey:
I am put on the spot, and maybe this is not a direct answer to the Senator's question, but if I were the president, I think the key change would be assessment - to move away from exam-based assessments and the over-assessment that have come in as part of modular semesterised systems.
Dr. Jen Harvey:
Assessment and feedback is core and it should be done strategically across a programme. There is horrendous clumping and over-assessment in programmes which encourages things such as plagiarism and surface approaches to learning. That is why we are harping on about the importance of providing academic staff with strategies - so that they can review and reflect and make a choice about the best way to assess something. One size does not fit all. DIT certainly has a diversity of learners, and to assess them only in one or two methods - I am not saying that happens at DIT - does not capture the strength of the different kinds of learning and the different academic qualities that students are bringing. There is such a diversity of programmes within the institute. We need to be reflecting and doing something different. It is fundamental within the first year. Students need to know very early on how they are doing relative to others, whether they are progressing, whether they have the right skills and so on. That needs to be a conversation that happens with the academic member of staff within the first five or six weeks. There is something to discuss about assessment. It is hardly any surprise that students withdraw when one leaves any discussion on assessment until the final exams at the end of the year.
Professor Mary Gallagher:
Perhaps what I have to say is an answer in part. Parents who have children of college-going age are very conscious of mental health issues, as they are aware of their child as a whole person.
This is a good question, but let me be specific in the way I answer it. I teach a skill subject, and the language I teach is French. As well as being a lecturer, I am also a tutor and I take small groups and seminars. These students have to be taught a laboratory subject in small groups. One is interacting with small groups of students. Everybody knows that is where the pressure is at third level. If I were president, I would put more emphasis on small group teaching, more emphasis on the students handing in work. Certainly, at third year, I would be correcting a piece of written work from my students every week - that is, ten or 11 pieces of written work. They get feedback on their written work. They do oral work, so they are talking about themselves. There is a high level of contact. I was at an exam board meeting this morning before I came to this committee meeting. One of my students, who is borderline, sent me nine worrybug e-mails about what she needs to be doing. There can be significant contact, but the really interesting part of my answer to Senator O'Donnell's question, which I think will surprise members, is that one of the major problems with students who I can see are in difficulty is that they do not come to the small-group teaching sessions.
I have an answer. It must be a requirement that there is at least one meeting. There should be credit for attending that meeting. We have to incentivise it. It must be a carrot-and-stick approach. I know the students who are dropping out and they are largely boys. There must be a requirement-----
Where would matters stand if we were to give credits for personal meetings? I never heard old rubbish like it. Would people receive credits for getting out of the bed or arriving at the bus stop? This is lunacy.
Dr. Greg Foley:
I have a document here and I will send it to members. I have 15 suggestions but I will speak about two. First, and this may be boring, we need a rolling capital investment plan for the STEM disciplines. If we do not have that, all the talk about a knowledge economy is nonsense. Second, this will sound funny coming from an engineer working in a so-called STEM area, I have spoken to career guidance teachers about this and I am aware that secondary school leavers feel badgered into doing STEM courses. It is coding, coding and more coding. Having done coding, these disciplines are real minority tastes and do not appeal to everybody. If one considers what the best-performing students in our universities are studying, it is often the humanities at which they excel. I worry that, as a country, we are becoming obsessed with STEM. It is such a broad term and people are studying biology, physics, coding and they are all different. What I would love the Minister to do is to set up a working group in which he talks to recently qualified graduates who have made the transition from B.Sc or PhD into the workplace. Nobody over 35 years should be invited. If one talks to recently qualified PhD students in the STEM area, they will give one a very different perspective from the spin about the knowledge economy. That is trickling down to school leavers. I have one career guidance teacher from Scoil Chaitríona in Glasnevin who tells me that her students feel they have to do maths because of STEM. They feel the economy will fall apart if they do not study STEM subjects. I would like to get a really good sense of what the economy needs. Do we all have to be fantastic at maths? I am not too sure we really do. Engineers use maths.
Dr. Jen Harvey:
I think Professor Moore's group has initiated a great deal of work that will be a good foundation for making substantial changes into the future. One example is the digital road for Ireland, which is necessary, and the group is undertaking a review of various projects about technical infrastructures and support for digital literacy. I think that is encouraging. In the context of much of the work that has been under way on transition pieces - work that has been researched in many institutions across Ireland - really useful data are available on the website.
Parity of esteem between teaching and research is something with which we are all wrestling. I am always arguing the case - the perspective of comparing it to the Taliban is interesting - that there is teaching versus research. Perhaps that is an IOTI piece.
The teaching here achieved a learning impact award. I am not a great person in terms of awards. I view them with a degree of cynicism, but if it actually recognises the value of it-----
Dr. Jen Harvey:
That is absolutely key, we need to be promoting people who are teaching. Teaching quality is complex. Much of Gibbs's work in response to the Green Paper in the UK has looked at what the measures might be. The conclusion he draws is that it is about learning gains as this is the only real measurable piece. The quality of most institutions is determined by the actual funding, the research that comes and the quality of the students which is the prestige of an institution, so one cannot fail. One has to look to measure one's success as a teacher as how one has moved somebody on, so one measures the learning gains. How does one do that? That is up for debate. I do not think they have got it right in the UK as yet, but at least they are discussing it and that is the reason really that this has been put on the agenda now. Nationally, we need to have more discussion.
Professor Mary Gallagher:
I have a point arising from this very interesting discussion. Senator Healy Eames was not present for this part of the discussion. One of the things I have been trying to focus on is the difference between how one raises the quality of learning, as well as the what and the why of learning.
I really think the mental health of the student is an issue. We have not really focused on it but Dr. Foley touched on it when he referred to the unrelenting emphasis on STEM and being good at maths. Are we aware that the humanities are really under threat in Ireland at second level? When I was studying French at school I read a book of short stories. I was able to do that and we did it at school. That has all gone. In the languages, pupils do not read books with the exception of Irish and what they are now reading in Irish is getting contracted. That is terrible. That is an issue that I will try to address before I hang up my clogs. That is one of the major problems students of French have in university. The students loved French at school but they have no realisation that one must be able to read French literature, and they have only read it in translation. It comes down to the what and the why.
I think a person who has completed the first year in college should get some recognition that he or she could build on later. There should be much more flexibility in the system. One should be able to move all over the system at different periods of one's life. If we had that flexibility there would be less focus on availing of the once-off opportunity to get an education, and being finished if one does not go on at that stage.
Unless people wish to make final points, we will conclude.
This has been a really good engagement. It shows the complexity, the impact of different factors and circumstances on this issue.
I thank Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell for putting it on the agenda. I thank all the witnesses for their presentations and contributions to the debate. I thank members for their contributions.